Giving last respects to a beloved house

The house was built no later than 1925, and could be older.
The house was built no later than 1925, and could be older. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 16, 2014

It promises to be the grandest of funerals, with clergy leading a procession through the streets of Mantua, hymns sung by a gospel choir, and eulogies delivered by neighbors and friends.

But the honored dead isn't a person. It's a house.

Specifically, an old, empty, two-story rowhouse with a failing roof and broken windows at 3711 Melon St.

Its funeral - and demolition with pallbearer trucks carrying the remains to final rest - is the conception of artists, historians, and civic leaders: an effort to recognize downtrodden Mantua's past, take stock of its present, and celebrate its potential rebirth as the heart of a new federal Promise Zone.

"To funeralize a house, this is something new," said the Rev. Harry Moore of Mount Olive Baptist Church, who will give the invocation. "I'll approach this the same way I approach a home-going service or funeral for an individual. The only difference is one is a thing, and one is a human being."

The artist Jacob Hillman had the original idea, which was expanded by Temple Contemporary at the university's Tyler School of Art. The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage granted $160,000, and the property owner, WPRE Inventory L.L.C., an affordable-housing developer, was willing to let the house be torn down.

The property's financial value lies in the land, in the chance that something new could be built there.

Its emotional value is higher. Knocking down a house, neighborhood leaders said, isn't like razing an office building.

Homes hold memories.

Homes are where people get their children ready for school in the morning and tuck them into bed at night.

Homes are where people celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and where they mourn the loss of those they love.

By honoring one home, the sponsors said, they honor all. The demolition is a way to engage people in thinking about the future and protecting what remains of the past.

"We wanted to talk about family, families that lived in that home, how that's reflective of the broader neighborhood's history," said Patrick Grossi, a Temple doctoral student and project manager for "Funeral for a Home."

The ceremony is three months from now, set for May 31, but planning is well underway as neighborhood groups create new energy and optimism in Mantua.

"The whole concept of a funeral is a good thing, not a bad thing," said DeWayne Drummond, a lifelong neighborhood resident and president of the Mantua Civic Association. "You can't go forward if you don't know your past."

Artist brothers Steven and Billy Dufala, in charge of funeral details, wonder whether the body of the house can, as it dies, become a sort of organ donor: bricks to people who want to build garden pathways, timbers to those who need sturdy beams.

Steven Dufala, who with his brother has studio space at nearby 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, wants people to leave the funeral with a renewed sense of community and a drive for the work of improving Mantua.

"If that's all that happens," he said, "that's enough."

The house is a wreck.

In the last year, it's gotten attention from the city for all the wrong reasons: citations for rubbish and weeds, for being vacant but unsecured, and in October for its collapsing roof and a bulging rear wall. That filing deemed the house unsafe.

It stands as a lone tooth in a gappy smile, a sliver of man-made construction amid seven vacant lots.

The Promise Zone is a high-crime area, but there have been no robberies, burglaries, or thefts during the last six months in the four blocks around 3711 Melon, police records show. That may be because so many houses are gone that there's not much to take, little left to steal but grass and weeds.

The developer plans to rebuild much of the 3700 block, a rebirth that starts with the funeral.

"When I first heard it, it took me a couple times to grasp what they intended to do," said George Bantel, a partner in WPRE Inventory.

The Promise Zone, bounded by the Schuylkill to the east, Girard Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south, covers all of Mantua and all or part of Powelton, West Powelton, and Belmont.

Each year, Philadelphia issues about 675 demolition-related permits, according to Next City, a nonprofit media group. Despite recent population growth, noted those working on the funeral, Philadelphia still has more houses than people to fill them.

Nearly 15 percent of homes in the Promise Zone are vacant, double the city average.

That's partly why West Philadelphia was picked in January by the Obama administration as one of five Promise Zones nationwide. All are due to get attention and benefits in a bid to end decades of decline.

The Philadelphia zone's overall poverty rate is 51 percent, in places 80 percent.

It wasn't always that way.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mantua was almost a suburb, home to largely Irish and Jewish residents. In the midcentury, African American families arrived in the great migration from the Southern states. As recently as the 1960s, Mantua was a solid neighborhood of iconic rowhouses and single-family manses.

The Melon Street home was part of that. Records indicate it was built in 1925, although that may reflect an addition or alteration. A house has been located on the site since at least 1878.

A family named Richardson lived there the longest.

Leona Richardson bought the house in 1946, and kept it until her death nearly six decades later in 2002. In 2011, her estate sold the property for $9,000, and the next year WPRE Inventory bought it for $15,000.

Those planning the funeral are searching for a member of the Richardson family to attend.

When Temple's Grossi went inside the house in November, and again in February, he saw signs that someone was living there, a squatter who had illegally taken up residence. Most of the house was buried in debris and trash, but the second-floor bedroom was arranged as living space, with clothing and magazines on hand.

Even in its death throes, he noted, for that one person, the house was a home.

"This house is going to come down," Grossi said. "What's going to happen after that? That's an important question."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

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